Watching the Tide Roll Away
Otis Redding performing at the first Spring Week festival, 1968. Photograph by OK Library & Gallery, UMBC.
It is astonishing to realize what a relatively small percentage of Otis Redding’s time was devoted to making the records that preserve his art. Once he had cut his first hits for Stax—“These Arms of Mine” in 1962, “Pain in My Heart” a year later—he was mostly on the road. His new celebrity took him to the famous theaters whose names he would tick off in his wonderful version of “The Hucklebuck”: the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, the Harlem Square Club in Miami, the 5-4 Ballroom in Los Angeles, the 20 Grand Club in Detroit, the Howard in Washington, D.C., the Apollo in New York. As his fan base expanded to include white hipsters and rock celebrities, he cut a live album at LA’s Whisky a Go Go before embarking as the headliner of the Stax-Volt Revue on an enthusiastically received European tour. (A video of an Oslo concert in April 1967 is a remarkable record of the occasion.)
In near-continuous touring he evolved from a physically restrained performer focused on producing those formidable vocal tones—he was, famously, not much of a dancer—to someone who dominated a stage, extracting theatrical power from songs like “Try a Little Tenderness” and ratcheting up the tempo on numbers like “I Can’t Turn You Loose” to the point where even the MGs had trouble keeping up. The live recordings are often magnificent, but it was in the Stax recording studio that he did his greatest work. Perhaps being reunited for brief intervals with the MGs and the Mar-Keys, after touring with other musicians, provided the adrenaline that made it possible to record a masterpiece of an album such as Otis Blue in less than forty-eight hours, with the musicians taking time out in the middle of the session to go play their usual local gigs.
In the live recordings Otis works the audience with overpowering energy. In the studio he sings to the other musicians—and to himself, seeming to surprise himself with the effects as he creates them. He takes apart the lines of songs and breaks them into fragments that he holds up and examines to savor their newly revealed power. The rapport he elicited from Booker Jones, Steve Cropper, and the rest has been amply attested to; just listening to the records is testimony enough. (Among the great pleasures of Gould’s book are his very considered assessments of each of Otis’s albums, track by track.) Beneath everything is the duet he maintains with the MGs’ great drummer Al Jackson Jr. Otis is never “backed” by the musicians; he’s in the middle, responding and directing. Unable to read music and not a virtuoso on any instrument but his voice, he was able by singing the parts to organize complex instrumental arrangements that might be recorded on the spot. The Stax sessions for the most part did not involve overdubbing or splicing fragments together; they were assembled in place and recorded in real time.